BY TARA SMITH
The Great South Bay runs deep in Dan Derby’s veins. A native of Brookhaven hamlet, he summered in the waters off Davis Park at his grandfather’s home. “I was always around shellfish,” Derby said, recalling memories of just-shucked oysters, crabbing and casting a line. These days, he said, he doesn’t get out to fish much. “But it’s a huge part of who I am.”
That nautical history inspired the Bellport High alumnus’ latest artistic endeavor, which begins down at the bay. His handmade ink prints both immortalize local sea life and allow the creatures to jump back to life on paper.
Before Instagram allowed fishermen to pose with the day’s catch, Japanese fishermen in the 1800s used ink. That method is known as gyotaku, which translates to “fish rubbing,” a process of using ink to transfer the fish to rice paper. Since those days, gyotaku has evolved into a distinct art form. “Essentially, it’s a form of taxidermy,” Derby said. “A way to prove what you caught.”
Anyone who knows a fisherman has heard tales of the almost-catch: the ones that bit and got away, the hyperbolized sizes. But his aunt saved a family relic that Derby says gets brought out at family gatherings to prove this was no tall tale: a claw from a 20-pound lobster that Derby’s grandfather scored over 40 years ago. It’s Derby’s most recent print, still sitting on his studio table during an interview last week.
Derby, 30, came across gyotaku after seeing a print by Annie Sessler and Jim Goldberg of East End Fish Prints hanging on a wall at Noah’s in Greenport. “I was just blown away,” he said, adding that it inspired him creatively.
After attending FIT for illustration and the New York School of Interior Design, Derby did what most millennials do: moved back home and worked in the restaurant industry. “I did little things, designing friends’ tattoos or graphic design for labels,” he said. “But I never really did anything for myself.”
With his 30th birthday nearing, Derby’s wife, Erica, was faced with finding him the perfect gift. They had always wanted to hang a fish print in their newly purchased Blue Point home, but Erica found something better: Joe Higgins was offering gyotaku workshops in his Salem, Mass. studio. She planned a weekend away — they swore to travel more — and then surprised him with the class, described by Dan as “a paint night but with ink and fish.”
The process is simple, but you have to be patient and use the right kind of rice paper (he uses mulberry). Though it seems delicate, it is quite resilient, stretching, rubbing and taking up water.
Nontoxic ink is carefully painted on the surface with paper laid on top. Then, gently rub until the ink transfers and peel the paper away. Derby preps the fish by cleaning it with lemon. “It gets the oil and mucus off, and it does get kind of stinky,” he said, laughing. “But it’s good to use lemon because when you’re done, you can still eat the fish.” Derby said that after printing, he’ll prepare a meal or freeze it for a later one. “I try to keep it as sustainable as I can,” he said.
“It’s fun because of how hands-on it is,” Erica said. “The best part was getting to do something artistic with Dan. That’s usually his thing.”
“I was hooked,” Derby said, reflecting on the class. The couple now has an original print by Higgins hanging in their home, but even more of Derby’s originals — and more on the way. “I’m trying to print every oyster I eat,” he said, describing themselves as “oyster fanatics.” Whenever they go out to eat, they order up each oyster on the menu and raise some waiters’ eyebrows when they ask to keep the shells. “I label them and bring them home,” he said.
At an art fair, you may mistake him for a raw bar, since his signs feature several breeds he has printed: Goose Point, Glacier Point, Double D, Lucky 13. His personal favorite in terms of flavor and print is the Goose Point oyster, native to Washington. “The print came out almost abstract, and the oysters are amazing,” he said.
Locally sourced sea life is where he hopes to make his mark. He also donates some proceeds from the prints as a nod to organizations like Save the Great South Bay and North Oyster Bay Baymen’s Association. “[The organizations] are important to me because their mission is to help revitalize our local waters and the shellfishing industry that has struggled for so long, due to the ignorance of how detrimental things like lawn fertilizing and poor wastewater management are to the bay and its wildlife,” Derby said.
Last week, Derby launched his online store, Blue Point Fish Prints, to sell both archival prints and originals that range from $35 to $400. With help from LuAnn Thompson in Bellport, he printed limited runs of his oysters and framed them for sale. “[Dan Derby] does a great job at capturing sea life, the fluidity in their movement, everything in his imagines,” Thompson said.
Derby hopes to host his own gyotaku “paint night” workshop one day, but in the meantime is awaiting the perfect catch. “I’m really looking forward to doing a black sea bass because they’re such beautiful fish,” he said. “And just like every fisherman, I want to get my hands on the biggest striped bass I can find.”